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Anne Applebaum - Columnist

Snow Daze

By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A17

As it happens, I was awake on Monday at 5 a.m., the time when Washington area school superintendents decide whether a weather emergency is so severe that school must be canceled. I looked out the window. It wasn't snowing. When the alarm went off at 7, it still wasn't snowing, so I began getting my children ready for school. At 7:27 a.m., when it was still not snowing, I decided, just in case, to check the Montgomery County schools Web site -- and the rest is history. School was canceled. Everywhere. Clearly, none of the school superintendents were looking out the window.

At about 7:50 a couple of snowflakes did fall. But by 8:15 they had stopped. Even though I grew up in Washington, I have never lived in Buffalo, and I am not a hardy New Englander, by 9:30, when it was still not snowing, the whole thing began to feel rather surreal. Remember Orwell? "War is Peace." No snow is snow.

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It would be funny, except that for a lot of people it really isn't. In my capacity as a Post editorial writer, I do occasionally get to pursue my particular obsessions. Pointless school cancellations (if you haven't figured it out already) are one of them. That means I get to call up the superintendents' offices around the region and badger them for post-hoc explanations. Once, during precisely such a conversation, a county spokesman tried to justify another non-snowy snow day on the grounds that the roads were icy, so the school buses couldn't run. Why, I asked him, didn't they just cancel the school buses and let parents take their children to school? Over the phone, the spokesman grew indignant. "Not everybody," he said icily, "has a car."

That answer goes to the core of what annoys me the most about this ever-worsening local problem. For one thing, not everybody has a car, but most people do have access to public transportation, and public transportation is running on snow days, as is everything else except schools. More to the point, I'll wager that the number of people without cars is a lot lower than the number of people who might lose their jobs if they have to cut work too often to stay home with their children. Those are the people who plan for vacations and budget for the occasional illness but can't be expected to predict snow days when it isn't snowing. But they are not making the decisions, nor are they the motivating force behind them.

On the contrary, I fear it is not concern for their welfare but rather the culture of hyper-protectiveness, endemic to the Washington area and particularly to its schools, that leads superintendents to cancel whole days on the basis of a weather report. It isn't the non-car-driving classes that have created this culture either. No, the "my child can't be exposed to any risk whatever" sentiments, the same sentiments that have stopped preschools from going on field trips unless they have expensive, specially equipped buses, emanate directly from the lawsuit-prone, safety-obsessed, two-car-family classes that can afford to pay for the extra child care on snow days, and it is they who have spread it to the schools. Here's the message to the new immigrants and double-shift parents who have moved into this area in recent years: Your concerns matter much less than those of your neighbors. Here's the message to their kids: School doesn't matter that much, so we can cancel it on the basis of something as notoriously unreliable as a weather report.

It is true, of course, that by 9:40 on Monday, tiny little flakes did finally start coming out of the sky. By that time, all of the local children could have been safely inside their classrooms. It is also true that by 3, when it would have been time to leave -- and after the D.C. government had declared the snow emergency over -- the roads were wet and just beginning to turn ever so slightly white. But traffic was running; school buses could have run too. Only in the evening, long after everyone would have been home, did the snow begin to stick to the roads, just in time to ensure a late opening of school on Tuesday.

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